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De-Spinning the UN Broadband Report

The United Nations Broadband Commission’s new report, The State Of Broadband 2012: Achieving Digital Inclusion For All is worth a read for all broadband policy wonks. It highlights the benefits that Next-Generation Broadband Networks (NGN) bring to economies and to citizens, explores the value of mobility, and celebrates the dramatic progress that nations are making in bringing high speed, “always-on” connectivity to everyone. By the UN’s estimate, there are nearly 6 billion mobile devices in the world already, which exceeds the world’s over-14  population by a billion or so.

Roughly 80 per cent of these connections are narrowband (voice and text only,) so we still have a long way to go in terms of universal broadband. Wireline broadband connections to the home continue to increase worldwide as more people buy computers and carriers offer low-price plans with correspondingly low usage limits, and many carriers price broadband on a pre-paid basis to reach lower income groups. This strategy has worked for cellular quite effectively, so there’s little doubt it will work for wired broadband as well.

By the U. N.’s forecast, the market for machine-to-machine connections may be as high as 20 devices per person, but most of that will be local and personal, handled by technologies similar to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but the ability of these devices to communicate with their owners and with cloud services across the Internet is essential as well. For many people, the first taste of the broadband Internet will come from upgrading a basic cell phone to a smartphone, and from there to tethering a larger screen and full keyboard to a wireless broadband system.

The report cites Akamai data to the effect that 100% of United States connections to Akamai servers are at 5 Mbps or higher.

High-speed (at least for some)
Countries with % connections to Akamai > 5 Mbps, shown on a sliding scale with light blue showing 100%.
Source: Akamai

That’s the good news. The less good news is that many Americans still lack computers at home and don’t see any reason to purchase the broadband subscriptions that are available to all via satellite, to 95% via at least one fixed location wireline or wireless carrier, and to 90% from three service providers (of all types) or more.

The lack of take-up and use of broadband service is a problem that can only be addressed by programs geared at increasing computer ownership and digital literacy, especially for elderly and poor populations. Broadband is a wonderful way for older people to stay in touch with friends and family, meet new people, and keep their brains active in the face of social isolation. For the poor, the benefits of connection are manifold, as we’ve discussed in numerous ITIF reports. The key points are education, job search, health, and literacy. Many people are learning to read and write around the world simply to enjoy text messaging, for example.

The UN report gets lazy and commits a common error in a crude attempt to rank broadband usage, employing data that divides total broadband subscriptions by households to reach the figure. This calculation is biased by household size, and would never permit the United States to rank higher than 12th even if each of the top 12 countries were 100% connected. The U. S. simply has the 12th lowest number of people per household, so the 11 countries that are even lower will necessarily rank higher in connections per household than we do. As it stands, the UN ranks us 18th out of 132, which is not bad but could be better.

One feature that several of those ahead of us in the rankings share is a history of computer ownership promotion; Korea in particular has invested heavily in such programs. Another frequent feature, especially common in Scandinavia, is a high rate of divorce or never-married parenting. We probably don’t want to go down that path, even if it boosts our broadband bragging rights.

We’re also surprisingly low in mobile broadband use on a comparative basis, ranking “only” eighth out of 135, with a 65.5% ratio of phones to people, well behind world leader Singapore with 111%. The bias built-in to this figure weighs in favor of countries were employers routinely issue company phones to workers. When these people buy their own subscription for personal use, the numbers explode. Japan jumps ahead of the US in mobile broadband, while they’re behind us in fixed; Korea is a leader in both categories. Much of Scandinavia enjoys a high mobile broadband ranking, not surprising given that this technology has been in use there since the 1990s (look up RAM Mobile Data.)

We do our worst in the ranking of “People using the Internet” at 78%, putting us in 23rd place worldwide, behind a collection of countries that have invested in computer ownership (and some with fewer children.) This is an area where we can do more work, as we’ve said.

Some advocates are already spinning the subscriptions per household data to lead policy makers to erroneous conclusions. Our policy efforts should concentrate on broader use and universal access, not on subsidizing redundant networks or bringing irrelevantly high-speed connections to those who are already connected. Some better data on penetration and use would also be helpful.

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